Tag Archives: trauma

Heartberries, by Terese Marie Mailhot (“The work of ‘never done’: therapy and writing.”)

9781619023345-256x413A thousand thanks to my friend Dr. Kelli Zaytoun for recommending this distilled and beautiful memoir. From the publisher’s description:

“Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Band in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II disorder; Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot’s mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father—an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist—who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.

Mailhot trusts the reader to understand that memory isn’t exact, but melded to imagination, pain, and what we can bring ourselves to accept. Her unique and at times unsettling voice graphically illustrates her mental state. As she writes, she discovers her own true voice, seizes control of her story, and, in so doing, reestablishes her connection to her family, to her people, and to her place in the world.”

This book is among a few gems I’ve read lately, written by women, that grant permission. Permission to reveal the self, in all its tatters and glow. Permission to speak the truth even when it isn’t convenient or dainty. I can’t recall where I heard this, but somewhere, a wise human referred to writing memoir as a kind of alchemy: how a writer metabolizes her experience into a distilled piece of art. Mailhot does so here, with grace and wisdom.
A couple shimmery passages from Mailhot’s memoir:

Page 72: “[My mother] taught me that I didn’t own things. I really liked the idea of possession. We don’t own our mothers. We don’t own our bodies or our land—maybe I’m unsure. We become the land when we are buried in it. Our grandmothers have been uprooted and shelved in boxes, placed on slabs of plastic, or packed neatly in rooms, or turned into artifact—all after proper burials. Indians aren’t always allowed to rest in peace. I want to be buried in a bone garden with my ancestors someday. I’d like to belong to that.”

And: 

 

Page 97: “I can’t believe my reserve of water—from my nose and eyes. I have dormant fluid in my body, every woman does. I don’t know if I am a cavern or a river.”

In the back of the petite volume, Mailhot is interviewed by Joan Naviyuk Kane. In the conversation, Mailhot says things about writing that I know will stick with me (and will help, in working on memoir):

About women writing our stories:

Page 131: “I know the book isn’t simply an abuse narrative, but then it is. I was abused, and brilliant women are abused, often, and we write about it. People seem so resistant to let women write about these experiences, and they sometimes resent when the narrative sounds familiar. It’s almost funny, because, yeah—there is nothing new about what they do to us. We can write about it in new ways, but what value are we placing on newness? Familiarity is boring, but these fucking people—they keep hurting us in the same ways. It’s putting the onus on us to tell it differently, spare people melodrama, explicative language, image, and make it new. I think, well, fuck that. I’ll say how it happened to me, and by doing that maybe it became new. I took the voice out of my heat that said writing about abuse it too much, that people will think it’s sentimental, or pulling at someone’s pathos, unwilling to be art. By resisting the pushback, I was able to write more fully and, at times, less artfully about what happened.

I remember my first creative writing professor in nonfiction asked his class not to write about abortions or car wrecks. I thought, You’re going to know about my abortion in detail (if only there had been a car crash that same day). I don’t think there is anything wrong with exploring familiar themes in the human experience. When the individual gets up and tells her story, there’s going to be a detail so real and vivid it places you there, and you identify. I believe in the author’s right to tell any story, and the closer it comes to a singular truth, the more art they render in the telling.”

And about work that is never really finished:

Page 132: “Cathartic or therapeutic—those words are sometimes used to relate a feeling, like a sigh of relief, or release, but therapy is fucking hard. My therapists didn’t pity me, not the good ones; they made me strip myself of pandering, manipulation, presentation—they wanted the truth more desperately than I did, and they wanted me to speak it—live it every moment. I feel like writing is that way. Writing can be hard therapy. You write, and then read it, revise your work to be cleaner, sharper, better, and then, when you have the best version of yourself (not rhetorically, but you’ve come close to playing the music you hear in your head)—you give it time and re-read it—you go back to the work—it seems endless. Nothing is ever communicated fully. The way being healed is never real unless every moment of every day you remind yourself of your progress and remind yourself not to go back, or hurt someone, or do the wrong thing—it’s not healing unless you keep moving—you’re never done. The work of ‘never done’: therapy and writing.”

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An apology I owe Dylan Farrow (what bends/what breaks)

thumb_IMG_9602_1024In the past, when talking to my classes about comedy, I’ve used a clip from Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors: Alan Alda’s character being interviewed by Allen’s character, and Alda talking about humor. (“If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it isn’t.”) It’s part of a discussion about discerning when something has gone just far enough but not too far, and where the boundary resides (highly subjective and context-dependent, but worth considering). Much as the clip makes a good point, and much as I adore Alan Alda (despite his not having disavowed Woody Allen, yet), this time, I didn’t use the clip. I didn’t want to elevate or even look at Allen, and didn’t feel equipped to have the necessary discussion about why.

This omission is a tiny act, almost unnoticeable.

I am not above reproach: for years, since the accusation that Woody Allen molested Dylan Farrow, I’ve been in denial, thinking HOW COULD HE HAVE DONE SOMETHING SO AWFUL? (For Buffy fans, it feels like that “Wait, Ben is Glory?insta-forgetting…as if my brain cannot contain the possibility that someone whose work I admire—and whose work provided me an early understanding of what art could do—could have molested a child. And then essentially married a child, another of his children. If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks…)

I grew up watching Allen’s films. His movies were formative to me, the early ones, the funny ones. Since hearing Dylan Farrow’s initial accusation back in 1992, I have been ambivalent enough, or in denial enough, or self-loathing enough to not boycott Allen. I haven’t actively defended him, but I’ve seen Wild Man Blues (featuring Allen and Soon Yi Previn) smore than once. I own the soundtrack to Everyone Says I Love You.

My own broken psyche apparently couldn’t excommunicate the filmmaker…was I passively accepting the notion that Dylan Farrow imagined her abuse, or had been brainwashed? As a seven-year-old child? At any rate, I was minimizing her pain. I looked the other way, just kept singing along to those catchy tunes, because HOW COULD HE? (Ben is Glory?)

I worked at the summer camp from which Soon Yi Previn was fired (a few summers before she was fired) and heard stories from friends about that big mess. I’m ashamed that I am only now thinking about this, and wondering what I can or should do (or not do), as a sentient being in the world, a person who believes the victims.

I’m a survivor of child sexual abuse. Why did it take me this long to stop with the Woody Allen apologies? Why have I turned away?

By continuing to celebrate Allen’s art, am I complicit in the abuse, by not condemning the artist?

A couple weeks ago (the same week I read about Eliza Dushku’s stunt man, and the Michigan State University nightmare), I read the NY Times piece, Dylan Farrow Accuses Woody Allen of Sexual Abuse in TV Interview.

That was a very triggering week.

And I started drafting this distant apology to Dylan Farrow. Believing the reality of abuse is hard enough for survivors. To paraphrase Bessel van der Kolk, from his book, The Body Keeps The Score, a big part of healing is feeling what we feel, and knowing what we know. Moving away from dissociation, from minimization, from forgetting. From looking away. It’s not as easy as it sounds, when a body has been violated. We don’t want to feel what we feel. We don’t want to know what we know. It is an ornate and twisty thing, memory. It’s hard enough without the disbelief of everyone else. We start to feel like we’re living a fiction, or we’re invisible, or don’t even exist.

People—usually those who disbelieve, or minimize, the stories of victims—often claim that if a person’s not coming forward or speaking loudly enough, it must mean memories are false.

I asked Dylan if there was any chance that this was a false memory, that she had been brainwashed.

“No,” she said flatly. “I think it’s more logical almost that the people who accuse me of being brainwashed are brainwashed themselves by the celebrity, the glamour, the fantasy, the pull they have to Woody Allen, their hero on a pedestal.”

The larger point, she said, is not her own suffering over the years, but the need to listen to victims.

And later in the same piece, Kristof continues:

One demographer’s new estimate is that at least three-fourths of women worldwide have been sexually harassed.

I am sorry for any time I have looked away, or minimized someone’s pain and suffering.

I’m left with the question of what to do about the art of perpetrators.

For now, I’ll find another way to talk about what is bending and what is breaking.